Paul Verhoeven has been shocking and thrilling audiences for 46 years. He's back after a ten year absence with Elle, which might be his most daring work yet. We sit down with the Dutch auteur to talk sex, satire and Isabelle Huppert
“The translation is false!” Paul Verhoeven is sat in front of a sold-out audience within London’s film-lover Mecca, the BFI Southbank, for an onstage overview of his 46-year film career, but he’s not happy with the subtitles on the first clip of the night. The scene in question comes from his Dutch box-office smash Turkish Delight, which shows the film’s protagonist, sculptor Eric (Rutger Hauer), frantically masturbating over a photograph of his ex, Olga (Monique van de Ven). The Dutch auteur is quick to correct the error: “[Eric] says ‘I’m coming now,’ but in reality he says in Dutch, ‘I’m licking the shit off your asshole.’”
If anyone in the audience is offended by Verhoeven’s frankness, they've clearly not been watching his films. For five decades he’s been one of cinemas great provocateurs; shocking us is what he does. There are his comic, open-hearted and non-judgemental studies of women making livings off their bodies (Business is Business, which started his career; and Showgirls, which nearly ended it). He’s made outrageously sexed-up film noirs (The Fourth Man, Basic Instinct) that got mainstream audiences hot under the collar. His big budget sci-fis (Total Recall, Starship Troopers) run red with gleefully brutal, often sickening violence.
On paper, his latest film, Elle, which is part rape revenge thriller, part bourgeois comedy, might be his most controversial yet. Suffice to say, this mischievous Dutch auteur has never been one to spare our blushes.
When we sit down to speak to Verhoeven in a London hotel the following day, the 78-year-old, still trim and roguishly handsome, is as forthright as he was on stage. “When you look nowadays at American movies, sex is expressed in a completely cryptic way,” he laments. “Whenever there is a sex scene, the woman keeps on her bra. In my experience, that is really exceptional.”
For all the outlandish, satirical elements of his films, he insists he’s completely earnest when it comes to depicting carnal pleasures. “What I try not to do when I’m making movies is imagine the sex scene, to construct a sex scene out of my imagination,” he explains. “I always feel it should be based on sex that I know, otherwise I think you easily drift off into pornography.”
We raise an eyebrow at this, thinking back to the notoriously daft scene of swimming pool rumpy pumpy in Showgirls where Elizabeth Berkley’s ambitious stripper flails about in ecstasy while jets from a dolphin fountain almost drown her. But we don’t get a chance to interrupt; Verhoeven is on a role.
“I like sex, of course. I represent sex in a real way because it’s something wonderful.” He suggests the Dutch culture might be the reason for his more relaxed attitude. “I didn’t invent it. If you look at Dutch paintings, say, in the 17th century, and compare them to paintings in Italy and France and Britain, you see an enormous sense of reality. Rembrandt would sketch his copulations with his wife, for example, or a woman pooping or peeing. You wouldn’t see that in an Italian renaissance painting. We grew up in that atmosphere of reality – yes people are peeing and pooping, and why hide that?”
Hollywood’s reluctance to show the realities of sex isn’t necessarily to do with moral objections, however. “It also has to do with making more money,” agrees Verhoeven, “because then the movie is not an R, it’s a PG-13, and everybody can go in. It’s all to do with this generation of the capitalist system.” Verhoeven came up against this immovable force when he tried to make Elle – which is based on Philippe Djian's French novel Oh... – in the US. “We found that there was really no appetite in the United States to cooperate with this movie – not financially and certainly not artistically. There were five or six actresses that we approached but they didn’t want to do it. It was a straight no. They didn’t like it at all. After a couple of months I said ‘we’re on the wrong road. Let’s go back to France.’”
Does he think the American film would be very different if he’d manage to get it made? “Oh yeah sure, it would have been a failure,” he says with a shrug. “I didn’t think so at that time, but now that I have made this film, and made it with Isabelle Huppert, I think ‘My God, what did I think? That it was possible in the United States?’”
What would have been different? “It would have been so much flatter and so much more banal,” he says confidently. “And so much more irritating and, and even… disturbing, but in a very negative way.”
We’re glad he made the switch, because Elle should be filed alongside the other Verhoeven masterpieces like The Fourth Man and RoboCop. And like those films, it’s not without its controversies. It opens with the savage, horrifying rape of Huppert’s character Michelle, the fierce head of a video gaming company, by a masked assailant. Michelle’s reaction to the encounter is hardly conventional. In fact it’s downright startling. She doesn’t call the police, or a friend, she simply cleans up the mess, has a bath, orders some sushi and scolds her cat for not intervening: “you didn’t have to claw his eyes out, but scratch him at least.”
She refuses to be a victim, but she’s no vigilante out for revenge either. She does try and discover who the masked attacker was, but her motivations remain clouded in mystery. When Verhoeven premiered the film at Cannes he was prepared for a backlash – “as I’d been showing the movie around before Cannes, people were telling me this will be extremely controversial” – but it never materialised. “I’m surprised it didn’t happen,” he says. “I mean, pleasantly surprised that it didn’t happen, but I thought that based on the warnings of other people that there would be controversy.” In particular he thought that audiences would be unwilling to accept a film with multiple, brutal rape scenes that was, in parts, also laugh-out-loud funny.
Does he have any theories as to why the film has been so embraced? “I think, perhaps, it’s the French culture or Isabelle Huppert,” he muses. “She protects the movie in some way. These pretty weird moves that Isabelle’s character makes are acceptable to audiences because it’s Isabelle Huppert doing it. You believe her. Even if you don’t understand her, even if you do not sympathise with her, even if you think that you strongly disagree, but you accept the fact that this woman exists this way, and that is the beauty of her performance.”
We’d also argue the acceptance might have a lot to do with the critical establishments changing attitude to Verhoeven, especially with regards the films he made in Hollywood. As the years go on, their intelligence and artistry seem even more apparent, particularly the two brilliant sci-fi satires he made with Edward Neumeier, RoboCop and Starship Troopers. “When we were making those films, we felt there was a certain movment in American society towards fascism,” he explains. “RoboCop is more urban – fascism in the police – and Starship Troopers is very much about American foreign policy.”
Starship Troopers in particular was wildly misunderstood on its release, its combination of soapy teen love story, Leni Reifenstein-style fascist imagery and brutal scenes of intergalactic warfare obscuring the fact to many critics that this was a blisteringly funny and deeply self-aware lampoon of right-wing warmongering. Despite the poor reception, Verhoeven clearly has fond memories of the film’s making. “[Starship Troopers] was really written with pleasure, with fun. We were lighthearted when we wrote these scenes, sitting over coffee and laughing. We weren't saying this was America: we used elements of reality in both films and extrapolated them in a hyperbolic way.”
Looking back, we’re not sure they’re even hyperbolic. Six years after Starship Troopers' release the people of the USA and the UK would find their nations invading an enemy that were as dehumanised as that 1997 film’s bug civilization. And let’s remember that the antagonist trying to make Detroit great again in RoboCop was a callous property tycoon who was getting into politics to make himself lots of money. Remind you of anyone?
Elle is released 10 Mar by Picturehouse Entertainment